by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA
What an honor to have Clark McGinn send the following article. Clark is a
gifted Scottish speaker, talented writer, consummate Burnsian, and a
Historian in his own right. He would easily be described as “a Burns
scholar”. I’ve never seen anyone credit his sources like Clark, who knows as
much about the Bard as anyone I know!
Clark McGinn is a man of the people because he speaks and writes from his
heart. Those who are fortunate to hear him speak or read his books and
articles understand him. We are fortunate to have him again in this space
and I in particular find this topic illuminating. Sir Walter Scott occupies
a prominent spot in my library as well as in my heart. Scott was my first
Scottish hero, long before Burns became such an important part of my life.
No man loved Scotland and her people more than Scott, including Burns. While
Scott seemed to have been the forgotten writer during the big Homecoming
events last year, he stands tall in my life. He was the world’s first
celebrity writer! It is because of him that today we have “historical
Thanks, Clark, for dropping by again. You are always welcome and I’d like to
pay tribute to the Burns Chronicle where this article previously appeared.
THE TEARS OF ROBERT BURNS
By Clark McGinn
Immediate Past President, The Burns Club of London
question I have often asked myself was ‘why did Robert Burns cry the day he
met young Walter Scott?’ You will remember the scene as drawn by Sir Walter:
‘As for Burns, I may truly say, Virigilium vidi tantumi.
I was a lad of fifteen in 1786-7, when he came first to Edinburgh, but had
sense and feeling enough to be much interested in his poetry, and would have
given the world to know him; … I saw him one day at the late venerable
Professor Ferguson's, where there were several gentlemen of literary
reputation, among whom I remember the celebrated Mr Dugald Stewart. Of
course we youngsters sate silent, looked and listened. The only thing I
remember which was remarkable in Burns' manner, was the effect produced upon
him by a print of Bunbury’sii,
representing a soldier lying dead in the snow, his dog sitting in misery on
the one side, on the other his widow with a child in her arms. These lines
were written beneath, -
Cold on Canadian hills, or Minden’s plain,
Perhaps that parent wept her soldier slain:
Bent o'er her babe, her eye dissolved in dew,
The big drops, mingling with the milk he drew,
Gave the sad presage of his future years,
The child of misery baptized in tears.
Burns seemed much affected by the print, or rather the
ideas which it suggested to his mind. He actually shed tears. He asked
whose the lines were, and it chanced that nobody but myself remembered
that they occur in a half-forgotten poem of Langhorne's, called by the
uncompromising title of 'The Justice Of The Peace'iii.
I whispered my information to a friend present, who mentioned it to
Burns, who rewarded me with a look and a word, which, though of mere
civility, I then received and still recollect, with very great
This is the famous literary collision, described in Sir
Walter’s letter of 10th April 1827 which was quoted in Lockhart’s Life of
There is corroborating detail from the reminiscences of Ferguson’s son Adam
(latterly Sir Adam) who was also there that day. Sir Adam was a friend of
the Chambers brothers, to whom he bequeathed his father’s Bunbury print at
his own death in 1854. At the Centenery Burns Supper of the Caledonian
Society of London in 1859, William Chambers reported his late friend’s
remembrance of that day Burns and Scott met:
‘It seems that Burns did not at first feel
inclined to mingle easily in the company. He went about the room looking
at the pictures on the walls. At length a picture arrests his attention;
it is a common-looking print, in a black frame. The painter of the
picture is Bunbury, [Here Chalmers describes the print and the verse and
shows the actual picture to the assembled Caledonians as if it were a
Burns was much affected by the print; he read the lines,
but before getting to the end of them, his voice faltered, and his big
black eye filled with tears.
What happened here to draw the poet’s tears? What conclusions can we draw
from the two brief descriptions of that afternoon?
The party was held in early1787 (the exact date is uncertain)
at Professor Adam Ferguson’s home in Sciennes in Edinburgh and we can see
from the recollections of the participants that Burns’s attention was caught
by a print of a woman keening over her dead soldier husband while nursing
their infant child. Underneath this sentimental picture was the saccharine
verse quoted above but which was unattributed until young Walter identified
it as being from Langhorne’s poem The Country Justice which has the
consequential effects of, and suffering caused by, war as one of its themes.
And there's the secret to the Bard's tears. The poem celebrates the
engagement at Quebec where the Highlanders under General Wolfe stormed the
French out of Canada at the Heights of Abrahamvi
(13th September 1759) and similarly in Europe the battle of Minden (1st
August 1759) where Scots infantry participated in one of the most amazing
feats of arms: footsoldiers routing the crack French cavalry in a rose
garden. These crucial victories set the foundation of the British Empire –
but to us of course 1759 is more important for being the year of Robert's
We cannot know for certain what Burns was thinking of, but it’s not a great
leap of faith to imagine him thinking that had his father ‘gaun tae be a
sodger’ and died as one of the many Scots who fell in the line of duty in
1759, Robert could have been the babe in arms at the centre of Bunbury’s
painting and Langhorne’s verse. The memory of his father’s death in February
1784 could only have made the coincidence more poignant particularly if this
meeting happened in early 1787. The connexion between his birth date and the
anniversary of his father’s death brought the poet to tears.
It's characteristic of Burns's sympathy and sense that for a moment in a
grand Edinburgh salon he was transported back to tears.
Trans: ‘I only saw Virgil; I was not intimate with the great man.’ from
Ovid ‘De Tristibus’.
Henry William Bunbury (1750 – 1811) ‘Affliction’ (1783) which influenced
the more important painting by Joseph Wright of Derby ‘The Dead Soldier’
(1789) based on the same quotation.
Actually ‘The Country Justice’ by John Langhorne (1735 – 79). In future
years Scott would use Langhorne’s verse as epigraphs – see Rob Roy c XIX
‘Life of Robert Burns’ J.G. Lockhart, Edinburgh 1828 (Reprint London
1976) pp 81-2.
‘Chronicle of the Hundredth Birthday of Robert Burns’ ed. James
Ballantine, Edinburgh 1859 p427
Also alluded to in the Jolly Beggars – Air ‘I am a son of Mars’ ll 6,7
‘My prenticeship I past, when my leader breathed his last. When the
bloody die was cast on the heights of Abram:’